By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
There's context to everything . . . even the decidedly unsportsmanlike act of walking off the court at the end of a crushing defeat without shaking your opponent's hand. That, in and of itself, is inexcusable.
But LeBron James, over the past five years, has made hundreds of decisions and utterances that play out in public. It happens a half-dozen times every day of his life, at arenas, and charity events and hospitals, representing the United States or the Cleveland Cavaliers or Nike or any of a dozen different corporate sponsors; he has to say something appropriate or greet someone in an awkward situation or act as the team leader and primary decision maker. And 99.9 percent of the time he does exactly the right thing. If we're keeping count on the behavior scoreboard, its LeBron James Gets It Right 299, LeBron Goofs 1. That's the ledger.
Overwhelmingly, the kid just gets it, that his responsibility to the NBA and professional basketball in general is too great to snub his opponent and not explain himself just because he suffered a painful defeat. Actually, you find out the true measure of an athlete's character after just the kind of loss Orlando hung on the Cavaliers last week. So this, relatively speaking, is a pretty big goof. The cameras are rolling when you're celebrated night after night as being the king of an entire region, so it's only fair that the cameras are rolling, too, when you walk off the court without congratulating Dwight Howard and his teammates for a job well done.
E-mailing the Magic later, as LeBron did, isn't good enough. And you don't just get to use the media to get across your message, then bail when it's tough. Explaining yourself to what is pretty much an adoring public isn't good enough when it's a day late. Finally, on Sunday, LeBron said: "It's hard for me to congratulate someone after you lose to them. I'm a winner. It's not being a poor sport or anything like that. But somebody beats you up, you're not going to congratulate them on beating you up. That doesn't make sense."
Oh, but it does make sense. And you're not actually a winner, no matter how many points you score or commercial endorsements you pile up, until you understand that.
These are the kinds of lessons that aren't learned in AAU ball, where the star is simply catered to, but college, where the coach has the position and the authority to say, "Son, go back out there and shake their hands or you'll get splinters in your butt for the next five games." LeBron, who came to the NBA straight out of high school, didn't get that. If Kobe Bryant had walked off the court without shaking hands, two straight years in the conference finals, no less, he'd have been taken apart in the court of public opinion.
Still, I'm reluctant, like most people, to be too rough on LeBron simply for the reason that he's been so consistently appropriate and well-reasoned. He's been everything you could want a star player to be in the NBA. I've had several conversations with him over the course of the 2008-09 season, one of them here in Washington, lengthy and wide-ranging, and it's not just that he's engaging, which he is. But he's thoughtful. He's taken the time, unlike a lot of famous players, to thoroughly examine the history of the league before he arrived in it.
And because he has, I'm hoping that Magic Johnson or Charles Barkley or Michael Jordan or Larry Bird, any one of the iconic players LeBron looks up to, will call him over the next week and very privately say: "You can't do that again. There's no excuse. You lose, you shake hands, you own up, you do it graciously. And if you don't want to handle it that way, there's one way to avoid it: Don't lose."
Somebody should remind LeBron that Isiah Thomas has been stained for nearly 20 years for leaving the court early and not congratulating the Chicago Bulls after they swept his Pistons for the Eastern Conference championship in Detroit. Thomas wasn't the only one who left the court in such a classless way -- Bill Laimbeer, as I recall, led the parade -- but Thomas was the most famous one, though only a fraction as celebrated as LeBron is now. It's something, great as Thomas was as a player, that he has never really outrun, though he has expressed regret over it many times.
If boxers, after getting pummeled by an opponent, can get off the canvas and shake a man's hand, then so can a basketball player, no matter how famous. James, like so many others before him, is going to have to grow accustomed to crushing losses. Only the great Bill Russell, for the most part, avoided them. Wilt lost, Kareem lost, Magic and Bird lost, Jordan lost. But as far as I know, they maintained a level of sportsmanship that isn't optional.
The NBA has been in good hands the last couple of seasons with LeBron, young as he is (24), sharing the responsibility of leadership with Kobe Bryant. And from the way LeBron has conducted himself day-in, day-out, I suspect he'll find a way to make amends for what he didn't do Saturday night in Orlando, which begins with understanding why he was wrong not to shake hands and can never let it happen again. It might take a great player to lead his team to the NBA Finals, which LeBron has already done once. But it takes a responsible leader to consistently play at the championship level. And LeBron James has to know, from this point forward, it's hard to do one without being the other.